Athletic directors Scott Stricklin and David Coburn had discussed for months their intentions to keep the Florida-Florida State rivalry game on the schedule. No matter what.
Then, on July 29, Coburn’s phone rang. It was Stricklin, the Florida AD, calling from Gainesville. There would be no Florida-Florida State game in 2020.
Stricklin, also clearly disappointed, was met with silence on the other end.
“He didn’t say a whole lot,” Stricklin said.
Coburn still hasn’t, at least not publicly. When the ACC voted to play a 10-game conference schedule with one nonconference game, the model specifically allowed four members — Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Clemson — to play against their SEC rivals. The ACC believed the SEC members would do the same.
Until they didn’t.
The SEC’s about-face encapsulated the “protect your own” mentality that swept across Power 5 conferences over the past month, as administrators crafted schedule models and locked in tentative season start dates ranging from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26. Ultimately, the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big 12 have wound up in roughly the same position — with truncated schedules and delayed starts for a season that remains in limbo regardless of their efforts.
“There was never any belief or expectation that we were all going to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time,” Big 12 commissioner Bowlsby said earlier this week. “I always felt like we would find ourselves doing comparable things, which we now have found. They didn’t have to be identical, but they had to fit together in a general sense. I think that was the outcome and that was the expectation.”
College football’s patchwork attempt to return this fall has been a reflection of the nation’s state-by-state response to the coronavirus pandemic. Conference commissioners are at the mercy of virus trends, their medical advisory panels, and university presidents. While each league mulled its options, the Big Ten became the catalyst for shattering a blockbuster nonconference lineup, when it announced July 9 that all fall sports would play conference-only schedules.
The ripple effect of the decision reached the Pac-12, as Oregon (versus Ohio State) and Washington (against Michigan) both lost home games; it also affected the Big 12 (Iowa State lost its storied rivalry game against Iowa) and the ACC (Virginia Tech could no longer play Penn State).
A Power 5 athletic director said he thought since the lockdown in March that the leagues would work together and make unified decisions in late July or early August. “And the next thing you know, it became individualized,” he said. “It was disappointing, without question.”
Big Ten officials say that wasn’t the intent.
“It all came from a really good place,” an athletic director said. “It wasn’t necessarily perceived as that because we were the first. It was really about, ‘How do we do this, how do we do it safely, how do we mitigate risk.’ … It came down to control and flexibility, which were all the things we’ve been publicly saying, and it’s played out that it’s all the things we’re all talking about now.”
Through numerous interviews with some of the sport’s most influential individuals, from athletic directors to Power 5 conference commissioners, ESPN reporters Andrea Adelson, Heather Dinich and Adam Rittenberg traced the steps of how an unprecedented rewrite of the college football schedule played out during the past month.
July 9: Big Ten releases conference-only schedule
Since the coronavirus pandemic brought college athletics to a screeching halt in mid-March, the Power 5 conference commissioners have been holding videoconferences weekly, if not more often. They had been in constant communication about potential scheduling models and contingency plans, with an understanding that each conference would also have to make some independent decisions based in part on the varying medical advice and circumstances for each region.
So when the Big Ten announced on July 9 its decision to move to a conference-only schedule, the format itself wasn’t a surprise to commissioners, but rather the timing of it: Big Ten officials made the announcement later in the day after the group’s latest video chat, catching some of the most powerful people in college sports off guard.
“We didn’t get a heads-up,” Bowlsby said.
“I was surprised at the timing,” Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told ESPN the next day. “It came before I thought there would be a decision made, but so be it. In a perfect world, all 10 FBS [leagues] would be moving together, but that doesn’t happen, so here we are.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said any decisions he has made have been done “in total transparency,” and said he has “communicated and will always communicate in the fashion I think is prudent at that point in time.”
“I don’t think it’s really mature for me to sit here and say, ‘How was this communicated or that communicated.’ I’m not one of those people that shares,” he said. “If we’re at the point where we start getting into who knew what, how did they communicate all of these different things, we are totally missing the important issues of what we’re dealing with.”
After the initial announcement, the Big Ten prioritized flexibility in crafting a 10-game, league-only schedule, announced Wednesday. The league initially considered front-loading the schedule with division games, but settled on a model with two open weeks per team — one between Weeks 5 and 7 and one between Weeks 10 and 11 — and a conferencewide open week after Thanksgiving. Both the first and last weeks of the schedule include only cross-division games. The schedule allows for 41 of the 70 games to shift to an open week, including Michigan-Ohio State on Oct. 24, moving out of its traditional end-of-season slot for the first time since 1942.
“It was something we were front and center about and asked all the athletic directors, is this something, if it allows us to have more flexibility to move things around if needed, you’re OK to have those games be placed in a different portion than when they normally would be played?” Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny said. “The answer across the board from them was, ‘Let’s try to keep flexibility as the primary focus of this year’s schedule. We’ll adjust to the outcomes of what that flexibility provides.'”
Other adjustments included repeat game sites for matchups like Michigan-Michigan State, which will take place in Ann Arbor for the second consecutive year.
“We traditionally put our schedules out years in advance, compared to other conferences,” Kenny said. “For us to have to think through in a three- to four-week period, how to create a schedule for the upcoming year, that was probably the most difficult part of the process.”
While the Big Ten’s initial announcement seemed to come quickly, the Pac-12 was also ready and waiting.
“We were very close to moving to conference-only, but we had our board call the day after the Big Ten,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “We were debating whether to stay the course or move to conference-only. The Big Ten going first, frankly made it easier for us, and that’s what our schools wanted to do.”
July 10: Pac-12 follows suit
On the morning of July 10, Scott woke up to a positive COVID-19 test. The results had come in overnight, and Scott immediately quarantined himself in his bedroom. He could no longer use his home office, and had to protect his wife and three teenage children.
He also had to navigate the league through its historic schedule change.
“That was obviously a personal health crisis for me on the day we had calls with our ADs, my staff, and ultimately our presidents and chancellors,” said Scott, who told ESPN he no longer suffers from the virus. “It certainly took all I could muster to keep my eye on the ball and stay focused on the issues we needed to work through that day while I had a lot of anxiety and unknowns about my own situation and the symptoms I was starting to feel.”
The Pac-12’s COVID-19 football working group, which is comprised of coaches and administrators, had considered a conference-only schedule, among four or five models, for weeks before the Big Ten’s announcement. The group, which included one representative from each school, knew the chances of getting in a full 12-game season were unlikely. It examined conference-only schedules with nine, 10 and 11 games, Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said.
The Big Ten’s decision to go conference-only eliminated major nonconference games with the Pac-12, including Oregon-Ohio State and Washington-Michigan.
“Once the Big Ten went to a conference-only schedule and impacted a couple of our really big nonconference games, that made it not easy, but easier for us to pivot to our own conference schedule and then make that declaration the very next day,” Anderson told ESPN.
The Pac-12 also had to continually factor in how the virus affected certain geographic areas, putting the league in constant scramble mode to adjust its models. As infections and hospitalizations spiked in Arizona and Southern California, the prospect of an on-time start and a full schedule seemed increasingly less realistic. Warnings from governors in California and Oregon against large gatherings cemented the need to start the season in late September.
“You come up with a scenario and you think you’ve got two or three schedules, ‘OK, this makes sense,'” Anderson said. “And then you’ve got COVID information in Arizona, COVID information in California, a governor in one state or another saying, ‘I’m not allowing more than X number of people to gather,’ that stuff was always changing. That was the most frustrating and difficult thing.”
The Pac-12 working group spent the next few weeks structuring the potential schedule. It placed traditional end-of-season rivalry games like USC-UCLA and Arizona-Arizona State at the beginning of the schedule, which allows them to be moved to later in the fall if local conditions require it.
“The Pac-12 ADs and coaches, we understood and said, ‘Look, this is a situation where it’s not going to be equitable. Everybody’s not going to come out of here feeling like I’ve got equal treatment. For the conference’s sake, this is as fair as we’re going to be able to do under these very difficult circumstances,'” Anderson said. “Once we got to the point where everyone signed off on the philosophy that fairness of the conference, not equitable treatment of every institution, we were able then to have some compromises.”
Even the league’s hypercompetitive coaches adopted the approach.
“Some places are going to be different than other places, so coming from different places and different situations on different campuses and different areas has been difficult to a certain degree, but the mentality has been the same,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
July 29: Welcome to the ACC, Notre Dame
One of the most impactful and anticipated weeks of the summer began July 27, after the ACC and SEC commissioners had said repeatedly for weeks that they expected to make their decisions by the end of July.
“We do intend to finalize a plan this Wednesday,” NC State chancellor Randy Woodson told ESPN on July 27, a Monday.
On Wednesday morning, before the presidents actually met, he said, “There’s a lot of uncertainty now. We may vote, we may not.”
Around noon, one ACC coach texted ESPN that he was “planning on having a team meeting today and sharing the schedule.”
“Now I am going to my team meeting like [insert shoulder shrug emoji here].”
The ACC faced a much more complicated situation than the other Power 5 conferences, thanks to a scheduling arrangement with Notre Dame and four SEC rivalry games to close the season. The goal was to try to keep both intact, lofty considering the thinking across the landscape was shifting toward a conference-only model.
Louisville, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State, who play those SEC rivalry games, pushed their colleagues to go with a plus-one model, believing the SEC would go in that direction as well. In a league that stretches up and down the East Coast with disparate perspectives around the role football plays at its respective institutions, what these programs pushed for held some serious weight. Though some athletic directors expressed concern about how they would fill that nonconference game, they all eventually agreed adding another game would be helpful for everyone, particularly television inventory.
“It adds another layer of complication to an already complicated situation, but you want to be empathetic towards those people in the room,” one ACC athletic director said. “[Florida State] may not care if we go to Florida State or not, but they damn sure care if Florida comes. But we’re in the conference and [Florida is] not, so that’s what I’m talking about.”
Most weeks, the discussions felt like it went nowhere as athletic directors listened to more models than even those in the room can remember.
“I’m not trying to make it into something that it’s not, but you need a really good abacus to figure out what you’re doing and how you’re doing it as you’re going through this because it’s not as simple as here’s what we’re going to do and if games get canceled, games get canceled.”
The ACC subcommittee charged with scheduling scenarios met weekly, and decided pretty quickly that if a full schedule was not an option, teams needed to play an even number of conference games plus at least one nonconference game. In order to do that, it needed to do something unheard of in the history of college football: bring in Notre Dame. As a full-time ACC member. For just this one season.
“We already had a gentlemen’s understanding, if you will, that the ACC games would be available to us if we got to that point,” said Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, who has known ACC commissioner John Swofford for 12 years and worked closely with him as members of the College Football Playoff management committee.
It made sense for both: Notre Dame already had six ACC games scheduled, but adding more would help with uniform testing and health protocols. Sharing its NBC television money was not going to be a deal breaker, either. As those discussions progressed, the Big Ten and Pac-12 made their respective announcements — and not once was Swarbrick surprised or concerned, even when he lost three major opponents in back-to-back days in Wisconsin, Stanford and USC.
“We fielded so many calls from people wanting to play us that I never was concerned,” Swarbrick said. “That was actually the cushion. If for some reason the ACC didn’t want to expand the schedule with us, or we had problems implementing it, I always felt good about the number of people who had expressed interest in playing us.”
Though the Big Ten and Pac-12 opted for conference-only, the ACC held firm to the plus-one model. If the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcement did anything, it solidified the plan for Notre Dame to play a full ACC schedule for 2020, and be eligible for the ACC championship game.
There was little pushback from coaches.
“People can say anything they want, any league in America would jump on Notre Dame right now if they wanted to join so the fact that we’ve got them for a year, good for us,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said.
The subcommittee then opted for 10 conference games plus one nonconference game. “It’s aspirational in a sense,” Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said. “If you do need to contract, it’s certainly easier to contract than it is to expand. If you go 8-plus-1 and halfway decide to add two more games, that’s really hard to do.”
On July 28, the ACC athletics directors agreed to send the 10-plus-1 model to the board of directors the following day. The board of directors, comprised of the presidents and chancellors of all 15 ACC members, would make the ultimate call on the schedule. Though the SEC had not formally made its announcement, there was still a belief it would go the plus-one route in order to keep the ACC rivalry games on the schedule.
“I didn’t have any reason to believe that they weren’t,” Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said. “I knew they were looking at a couple of different models, but in my conversations with [South Carolina AD] Ray [Tanner], I knew he wanted to play and we wanted to play and that was something we advocated for within the league.”
Still, some athletic directors were not sure whether the presidents would even vote that Wednesday, July 29. Miami athletic director Blake James, the chair of the ACC ADs, presented the options and endorsed the 10-plus-1 model. The presidents heard from the medical advisory group and others. Meanwhile, the ACC ADs all waited for news about a vote, while concerns grew that the SEC was going to go with a 10-game conference-only format.
What happened on that video conference call remained a relative secret until late Wednesday afternoon. Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra was leading a completely separate video call on diversity and inclusion when an email came into his inbox, telling him the board had approved the 10-plus-1 model. Within 15 minutes, the ACC announced it to the world.
At nearly the same time, reports started surfacing publicly that the SEC decided to forgo any nonconference games for 2020. Whether the ACC made a calculated move in announcing before the SEC or not, the fact remains no conference was going to pressure the SEC into doing something it did not want to do.
“You have to be conference-centric in these discussions, and while you’re hopeful it might work out, every conference is going to have their own view on what’s best for them, and I think that’s what happened,” Tyra said. “We felt the 10-plus-1 worked for us. It wasn’t the direction a couple others took. It was clear to me we’d be close to each other, but we might not be exact.”
July 30: SEC goes conference-only
SEC coaches held a morning phone call with the league that one coach described as “tense,” adding, “They won’t tell us any decisions.” Although all signs pointed toward a 10-game, league-only schedule, the SEC could maintain its four ACC rivalries and likely help teams from smaller conferences by allowing for one non-conference contest.
Prior to the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcements, another SEC athletic director said there was heavy discussion geared toward SEC schools playing their normal eight conference games and a nonconference game of their choosing.
“But that was taken off the table, and some of the schools with long-standing rivalry games in the ACC are the ones that fought the hardest to keep that one nonconference game on the table,” the athletic director said.
One SEC athletic director told ESPN the Big Ten and Pac-12 jumping out first and going to an all-league schedule put pressure on the SEC to follow suit, but said the conference’s decision to go to a 10-game league schedule had more to do with keeping everything in house and everybody following the same protocol, particularly in testing for the virus. He added that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey also liked the idea of being able to more easily adjust within the league as different situations invariably crop up.
“If you’re supposed to play a nonconference team from across the country and they call you the week of the game and say they’re not playing, what do you do?” the athletic director said. “But if that team’s in your conference, it’s a lot easier to adjust. There are going to be so many things out there we can’t control this season, but the commissioner wanted to at least be able to control everything we can. You do that by keeping everything within the league, and that eventually was the consensus.”
Now comes the next challenge — how to add two SEC games to each team’s schedule. There have been discussions about the league devising a ranking system based on strength of schedule as well as simply adding the rotating cross-divisional foes for the next two seasons in 2021 and 2022.
“There’s no way to make everybody happy, and what they say is fair isn’t going to be fair for everybody,” one athletic director said.
The proposal of adding the future rotating cross-divisional foes would mean Alabama would travel to Florida this season. The Crimson Tide are already scheduled to face Georgia in 2020.
“However it all shakes out, if Alabama gets out of having to play Florida, that’s going to cause some serious ripples,” one coach said.
Aug. 3: Big 12 makes its decision
While the other Power 5 conferences had been making season-changing decisions since early July, the Big 12 athletic directors questioned why they should react to it.
“Let’s stay on the course that we were going to stay on and everybody initially agreed upon that decisions like those didn’t need to be made until the end of the month or this first week,” one athletic director told ESPN. “Let’s not react to it just because everybody else is moving towards making a decision on scheduling.”
They waited … until Monday.
In the weeks leading up to the ultimate decision, four Big 12 athletic directors who comprised the league’s subcommittee on returning to play brought a series of possible models to entire group of conference athletic directors.
Among their considerations: the full 12-game schedule, which was always the first choice; nine conference games; nine plus one or two; nine plus two; playing regular nine conference games and leaving the nonconference schedule up to each school; a spring schedule.
On Monday, the Big 12’s presidents and chancellors approved the 9-plus-1 model for a variety of reasons. There was some concern about starting the football season in the middle of when the rest of the college students were returning to classes. There was also some hesitation to start before the NFL, and there was a belief that spacing the games would be easier to accomplish with fewer games and more flexibility.
“Sometimes the hardest thing is to be patient, and sometimes that’s exactly what leadership requires,” Bowlsby said. “I think we know more today about testing and protocols and mitigation and what the fall is going to look like than we would have known had we made decisions earlier. Although we came to comparable decisions as to other conferences, I think we have the benefit of additional knowledge that was helpful to us.”
If the college football season happens, it’s possible it begins with the Big Ten again going first. Its conference-only schedule is slated to begin Sept. 5 — the earliest tentative start date of any of the Power 5 conferences.
“Obviously it wasn’t a bad idea,” a Big Ten athletic director said of the move to conference-only, “because now everybody else has done it.”
The question now is whether all of the drama and negotiations will end up mattering.
As Warren cautioned earlier this week when his league announced its schedule, “it does not guarantee that fall sports or football will be played this fall.”
In other words, the hard part is just beginning.
ESPN senior writer Chris Low contributed to this story.